Mutant bacteria can’t live without caffeine

You might think you’re a coffee addict, but you’ve got nothing on a new strain of bacteria that has caffeine addiction literally written into its genes.

The new type of E. Coli bacteria could save our rivers from the perils of your morning buzz.

I know what you’re thinking: E. Coli doesn’t have the best reputation. But this new strain has been specifically engineered to clean waterways of excess caffeine– and it can’t survive without the drug, according to Popular Science.

Why bother? It turns out that some scientists are concerned about how humans’ caffeine addictions might be throwing off the ecosystem — though research on the subject is still hazy. About three percent of the caffeine from the coffee you drink ends up in the sewer system, according to this article on LiveScience.

Last year, scientists reported that they had found high levels of caffeine in the ocean off the coast of the Pacific Northwest –the birthplace of Starbucks Coffee, of course. No one seems to know caffeine’s effect on the ecosystem, though scientists have found that mussels exhibit signs of stress when exposed to caffeine.

My take: Pumping high amounts of a psychoactive drug into the ecosystem doesn’t exactly sound like a recipe for harmony in nature. It sounds like a recipe for sleep-deprived fish. Save us from our own addictions, ye mutant bacteria!

By the way, tracking caffeine levels is helpful for other reasons, too. Caffeine is clearly linked to human sewage– so when they find high levels of caffeine, it’s a good indicator that those waterways are also contaminated with fecal bacteria, according to the LiveScience article.

Coffee addict image by TJ Cosgrove, Flickr Creative Commons.


Roasting coffee by sound and smell

Have you ever thought much about how coffee beans smell, sound or feel as they’re roasting?

Artisan coffee roaster Gerry Leary might know those things better than anyone. He is blind, and he roasts his coffee using a talking thermometer and listening for the sound of water coming off the coffee beans during roasting. Cool, right?

Hear Leary’s story and watch him work in this excellent video:

(Hat tip: The Dark Rye blog on the Huffington Post, which featured this video in a recent blog post.)

Ethiopian coffee ritual important facet of culture


Here in the United States, we grab coffee with our closet friends to gab about gossip, life, and problems only to promptly return to whatever we were doing before.

But for Ethiopian women, a very precise and drawn out coffee ceremony allows them to bond with friends and family, according to a recent article posted by The Times of India.

“In Ethiopia, women do not have enough time. They work for 17 to 18 hours a day. The only time they have to themselves is during the coffee ceremony in the village. One woman prepares the coffee in her home and invites the other women of the village over,” Ethiopian Ambassador Genner Zewide explained to us in an interview.

The process, which can sometimes last between one and two hours, three times a day.

Moreover, this process is no blase affair. The coffee beans go through an extensive roasting ritual and are grounded on location. In Ethiopia, only women attend the ceremonies, but outside of the country men sometimes frequent the coffee ritual.

Have you ever participated in an Ethiopian coffee ceremony? What was it like?

Starbucks buys first farm

coffee cup

Coffee drinkers conflicted between fair trade coffee and those dangerously addicting Starbucks frappuccinos may soon ease their worried minds thanks to the Seattle-based company purchasing their first coffee farm in Costa Rica.

Despite the overall good attempt to fully switch to ethically farmed coffee, does this change mean Starbucks will have the opportunity to pull their business from locally owned farms and pull further into the Starbucks bubble?

According to the Bloomberg article recently released  the purchase is intended to enhance the franchise’s Grower-Support system and push the company’s use of ethically farmed coffee beans.

The 240-hectare (593-acre) holding will help support growers and their families, while allowing Starbucks to create new blends of coffee to sell, Chief Executive Officer Howard Schultz said in a statement. Seattle-based Starbucks has committed to buying only ethically sourced coffee by 2015.

Previously, the mega coffee chain invested resources to conducting Farmer Support Centers in Costa Rica, Rwanda, China and other locations where Starbucks purchased their beans from. These centers were designated to helping farmers lower the cost of  production, fight of harmful plant diseases, improve the quality of the coffee and increase premium coffees.

Starbucks has invested nearly $70 million throughout the past 40 years on increasing farmer support programs. Their first center in San Jose, Costa Rica opened in 2004.

According to a 2009 Seattle Times article on the benefits of Starbucks helping the farms they purchase from, the well being of farmers increased.

Vargas is one of the hundreds of farmers — large and small — in Costa Rica who have benefited from Starbucks’ arrival after an influx of cheap beans from Brazil and Vietnam saturated the market and sent prices tumbling in the late 1990s, creating a crisis for coffee growers.

As Starbucks’ presence grew in Costa Rica, Vargas’ relationship with the Seattle specialty coffee-shop chain tightened. He replaced 25 percent of his coffee plants with better breeds of arabica beans to keep up with Starbucks’ growing demand and quality standards.

This year, Vargas will sell 70 percent of the more than 7 million pounds of beans harvested on his farms to the company.

“Starbucks saved the coffee industry in Costa Rica,” Vargas says.

Will all the good Starbucks has done in trying to improve the quality and yielding profits of the farms simply be withdrawn as more farms are purchased by the coffee chain?

Probably not. Or at least, we do not know yet.

There will be, other advantages stemming from the Costa Rican farm purchase. According to a Starbucks press release, the international coffee shop intends to focus their farming adventure on learning more about how to manage changing climate and coffee farm production in addition to increased research on farming techniques.

“This investment, and the cumulative impact it will have when combined with programs we have put into place over the last forty years, will support the resiliency of coffee farmers and their families as well as the one million people that represent our collective coffee supply chain,” said Howard Schultz, Starbucks chairman, president and ceo. “It also opens up an opportunity for Starbucks to innovate with proprietary coffee varietals that can support the development of future blends.”

Additionally, there have been many debates as to whether Starbucks in a fair trade company or not. One blog determined the fair trade questions had by consumers: Starbucks does sell a line of fair trade their coffee, but do not regularly brew certified fair trade or stock many variations.

However, while Starbucks limits their certified fair trade products, nearly 86 percent of their purchased products are Coffee and Farmer Equity Practices (C.A.F.E.) approved. While they receive a negative response from various fair trade bent organizations, the chain has taken steps to prove their interest in improving their sustainability, according to a Triple Pundit post.

How does this impact your views on the monopoly holding Starbucks chain?

Statehouse emergency: The coffee fund runs dry


The Iowa House chamber is running a $1,400 deficit in an essential part of the budget — the communal coffee fund:

Lobbyists, as well as lawmakers, clerks, pages, doormen, staff and other Capitol regulars are asked to contribute $30 a year for the cost of brewing, flavoring, stirring and containing the coffee.

If coffee drinkers don’t cough up the money soon, the House clerk will have to consider discontinuing the service in a kind of caffeine sequestration. No one knows what kind of chaos would ensue in Iowa politics if that happened.

(I love that the writer of the article about this notes that journalists who cover the Iowa House “tend either to drink tea or French-press their own coffee each morning.” But I’ve never known a journalist to pass up free coffee…)

Iowa state capitol image by Jim Bowen, Flickr Creative Commons

Beyond Fair Trade: Can farmers make their own way?

Adam Baker / Flickr Creative Commons

When you see a coffee bag with a “Fair Trade” label, do you know what it actually means? Or does it mostly just make you feel good about your purchase? Do you know whether Fair Trade ensures that farmers are getting fair prices for their products — and who sets the rules, anyway?

The New York Times raised some of these questions on March 16 with a profile of a U.S.-born coffee grower, Kenneth Lander, who bought a coffee farm in semi-retirement, without needing it for profit. Then, after he lost his financial footing in the 2008 economic crisis, his livelihood suddenly began to depend on the farm:

Very quickly, he realized how difficult that was going to be.

He belonged to a “fair trade” co-op, which guarantees farmers a minimum price, but was making only $1.30 a pound on coffee that retailed in the United States for $12 a pound.

In a decision rooted in his Christian faith, Lander founded Thrive Farmers Coffee to create a better model that benefits farmers at every step of the production process. Instead of just selling their raw beans, Thrive farmers get a cut of the sales of the final product.

In the system that Thrive is trying to develop, farmers are paid only after their coffee has been exported, packaged and sold — at a much higher price — to retailers.

Thrive helps farmers by establishing relationships for the farmers with local coffee processing mills and co-ops. Then, once the beans are shipped to the United States, Thrive takes over, handling packaging, roasting and sales. In some cases, Thrive sells green coffee beans to roasters, in which case the farmer receives 75 percent of the proceeds.

[Read more in the Times story about Thrive Farmers Coffee.]

The group’s website says that in a typical coffee value chain, farmers receive only 2 percent of the final value of coffee — but farmers who use the Thrive model apparently gain about four times the earnings they would get even under Fair Trade.

This is the latest in a long struggle to make sure coffee farmers and laborers are able to live off their earnings. Fair Trade sets minimum guaranteed prices for green coffee beans, but it’s not a panacea. Some Fair Trade farmers pay their laborers below the minimum wage, according to this article by the Financial TimesPlus, most coffee farmers experience “three to eight months of extreme food scarcity” after the coffee harvest is over, according to a study by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.

And, as Brian Clark Howard writes, all farmers struggle to weather the fluctuations of the global market:

By 2001, the New York trading price for unroasted arabica coffee had sunk below 40 cents per pound. In contrast… [the price] averaged $3.07 in 1977. … As Gastronomica put it in 2003, “In real terms, prices are probably at their lowest point since coffee first became an internationally traded commodity some thousand years ago.”

[Prices have improved since 2003 — arabica prices currently average around $1.53 per pound —  but this article is still worth a read. Read more here.]

In addition to Fair Trade and the Thrive Farmers Coffee initiative, a smattering of other organizations and models are trying to make sure that farmers receive more of the final coffee purchase price. The Salvation Army is doing something interesting: It buys coffee directly from farmers in Vietnam, roasts it near the thrift stores, and hands out free cups to customers. The organization’s own article about the program says that it helps increase coffee farmers’ net earnings from about $50 per acre to $820 per acre.

The Thrive Farmers Coffee story in the New York Times seems to show that farmers too often get left out of coffee profits. In the U.S., we love our $4-per-cup coffee, but we do not necessarily think about where it came from. We might know our barista’s name, but coffee farmers seem so distant. Revamping the coffee value chain starts with greater awareness on our end, in addition to giving farmers more opportunities to stay involved with their coffee after the harvest.

Fair Trade is a good starting point, but don’t assume that the Fair Trade logo on your coffee bag means we’ve arrived at a system that’s truly fair for farmers. Thrive Farmers Coffee might be a sustainable solution, and I’ll be interested to follow the company as it continues to grow.


Another New York Times story about controversy over the “Fair Trade” label.

A few college friends of mine made a short documentary in 2011 that followed coffee from crop to cup.

Frequently asked questions about Fair Trade.

Image by Adam Baker, Flickr Creative Commons.

Video of the week: The three waves of American coffee

Watch the United States ride its love of caffeine through the post-war instant coffee craze all the way up to today’s artisan coffee connoisseurs. It’s a fun, informative clip:

For your consideration:

How have wars (notably World War II) influenced the way Americans consume their food and drink, including coffee?

In the video, Merry “Corky” White outlines three waves of American coffee consumption — and the most recent is the super-fine-tuned artisan coffee movement. What’s next?

(Video from Boston University. Hat tip: Smithsonian Magazine)

A visual history of coffee in the U.S.

How did Americans go from protesting a monopoly on tea importation in Boston in 1773 to drinking the most coffee in the world in 2013? What did the U.S. Civil War or World War I have to do with coffee? Who invented the coffee percolator?

Find answers to these questions and more in this great infographic from Lumin Consulting (click to enlarge):


(Hat tip: Brian Clark Howard of National Geographic, who featured this image in a blog post.)

Quality coffee an accessory for Cape Town consumers

cape town coffee

A strong coffee culture is no longer limited to quaint European cafes and hipster hot spots.

According to a recent article on CNN travel, Cape Town coffee shops quadrupled their caffeinated businesses between 2007 and 2012 with local coffee shop owners linking the change to the end of apartheid.

“Now that all races can travel, wherever they go, they get good coffee,” said coffee shop owner Anthony Swarz in the article.

Not only has coffee become something as a fashion statement in the South African city with business people having a signature orange and white cup delivered to their offices, residents have started to take pride in Africa being the main exporter for coffee beans, where Europe was formally viewed as the king of cappuccinos.

The shift in the country’s quality caffein consumption is mainly due to the dedication and passion local cafes devoted to premium coffee.

Thanks to the skilled roasters and barristas, good coffee may be had by all.